You know the backstory: The federal levees failed on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding New Orleans, especially the Lower Ninth Ward. Oh, but you don’t know what happened on Nov. 22, 2015.
As usual, the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club held its annual second-line parade. Then they did it. Amid a joyous explosion of funky drumming, sousaphone punctuation and trumpet declarations from three brass bands, these men danced onto the street in kilts. Kilts!
Colorful tailor-made outfits, fancy footwork and quality music—-these are the things second-line organizations compete on. But when you’ve done every variation of style and color, you have to do something more dramatic. “A lot of the guys were kind of leery about it,” says Anthony Dowell, the group’s spokesperson. “We knew we were going to get a lot of feedback. ‘Y’all look like girls. Y’all wearing dresses.’ So we knew if we were going to wear the kilts, we had to be cocky.”
Though they chose their traditional tartan based on its colors, their choice was serendipitous: the Black Watch.
Mutual-aid societies were founded more than a century ago to provide members with health insurance, a social outlet and the guarantee of a traditional jazz funeral. Much of that work is now done by insurance companies. But the spiritual succor provided by these parades remains crucial.
“Please leave your guns and problems at home,” Nine Times requested on its flyer. “We wore those kilts with pride; we wore them with dignity,” Dowell says. “We wore them with our heads held high.”
And in those few Sunday hours, we New Orleanians who walked and danced with them along the miles of the still flood-scarred parade route did so with pride and dignity.
We did so with our heads held high.
Elie, a New Orleans–born writer and filmmaker, was the story editor for the HBO series Treme